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RISC servers for data center efficiency


If you think RISC servers are taking a back seat to specialized mainframe transaction processors and inexpensive, general-purpose x86 processors, think again.


RISC microprocessors specialize in handling a limited and specific set of instructions and have fewer transistors, making them cheaper to use, more energy efficient and an ideal option for faster performance. The chips are most widely deployed in printers, mobile phones, video game consoles, hard drives and routers, but data centers are now paying greater attention to servers stuffed with Tilera, Intel Atom or other RISC-type processors.


Mobile devices, specialized apps drive demand


ARM Ltd, a major leader in the RISC chip market, “reported that 10 billion licensed RISC chips had been shipped as of early 2008 … and through various generations, variants and implementations of the ARM core processor, you’ll see that these chips are deployed in over 90% of mobile devices,” said Bill Kleyman, virtualization architect with MTM Technologies Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.


Christopher Steffen, principal technical architect at Kroll Factual Data, located in Loveland, Colo., sees RISC servers having the most value in any kind of application that is used to do heavy mathematical modeling and computation. These applications, in particular, require high-compute cycles. A few examples of RISC-based servers appear from SeaMicro Inc. and Calxeda.


“RISC-based servers allow companies to obtain the same number of compute cycles (if not more) at a much lower price,” Steffen said.


Kleyman reported that he also saw many users with Archos Tablets and Windows mobile devices, which all have ARM chips based on the RISC architecture. “Operations load quickly, and mobile computing is a core component in the warehouse environment,” he added.


Presence of RISC in data centers


The use of RISC chips in mobile and handheld devices will ensure the architecture will become more prominent in data centers, as administrators and IT staff employ them for everyday work tasks.


“More mobile devices, such as Windows mobile and iPad 2, are being used in everyday maintenance of core system components. Receiving alerts, troubleshooting errors and locating gear is made easier with some of these mobile computing devices,” Kleyman said.


Steffen noted that many applications (and most companies) that are utilizing RISC-based servers have been doing so for decades, using supercomputers or mainframes (with SPARC processors, for example) to crunch their data. 


“While some feel that this technology is going away, IBM continues to develop PowerPC microprocessor cores for use in their ASIC offerings, and many high-volume applications embed PowerPC cores … Recent versions of [HP-UX] support the HP 9000 series of computer systems, which is based on the PA-RISC processor architecture,” Kleyman said.  


“RISC servers will become more popular when businesses realize they can gain the compute cycles that they are now outsourcing to large mainframes and supercomputers for significantly reduced costs,” Steffen added. 


Making the case for RISC servers


Although reduced power and improved performance are obvious benefits of RISC technology, it’s important to have a solid business case before adopting RISC servers in a data center. In many situations, a conventional x86-based server with virtualization can handle multiple business workloads in a highly cost-effective manner. X86 servers are also extremely easy to source from a wealth of different vendors. Some RISC-based processors may also demand changes to software and infrastructure.


But consider the potential benefits. For example, SeaMicro claims their SM10000-64HD high-density, low-power server uses 768 Intel Atom processor cores to effectively replace 60 1U dual-socket, quad-core servers. This might not sound appealing at first glance, but the SeaMicro server also includes Ethernet switching, server management, fault tolerance and load balancing in the same 10U box, using only 25% of the power. In addition, the unit runs off-the-shelf operating systems and applications, preserving existing investments in enterprise software.


Cost and ROI considerations aside, careful testing and proof-of-concept deployments will be needed to ensure that RISC platforms provide the necessary compatibility and performance needed for your specific environment.


Stephen Bigelow, senior technology editor, contributed to this report.


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